“If it bleeds, it leads” is a classic media trope.
Not for the first time, that urge for sales (newspapers), viewers (TV and cable) and clicks (all things web) have elevated fear over truth. In the process, the fourth estate shirks its role in helping voters make informed choices.
It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of 40.
That quote comes from Sleepless in Seattle. But its root was a June 1986 cover story in Newsweek, a story that has been debunked and retracted, 20 years later.
Fear sells, even when it’s false.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a news release chastising nine jurisdictions that are colloquially known as “sanctuary cities.” These cities are, according to the DOJ, “crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime.” Notice how crime is being linked with immigration?
That linkage is made believable to the casual reader because of how media report violent crime.
When there’s a Muslim link, the media spotlight is brighter
In the United States, when a violent attack by an extremist group has an Islamic component, it gets about five times (449%) more coverage than a similar attack by a domestic group.
Three researchers at Georgia State University show that “the perpetrator’s identity alone is a significant predictor of media coverage.”
Whether the disproportionate coverage is a conscious decision on the part of journalists or not, this stereotyping reinforces cultural narratives about what and who should be feared. By covering terrorist attacks by Muslims dramatically more than other incidents, media frame this type of event as more prevalent.
Their data covers the period 2011-2015 and shows that almost one-fifth of the media coverage on terrorism was the Boston Marathon. That explosion killed three civilians and injured dozens.
Wade Michael Page’s attack on the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin killed 6 people and it only received 3.81% of the total coverage. Frazier Glenn Miller’s attack on a synagogue in Kansas killed 3 people and it only received 3.27% of the coverage. Dylann Roof killed 9 people in an African-American church in Charleston and received 7.42% of the coverage. These attacks have three things in common: the perpetrator was a white man and the targets were both religious and minority groups. These instances highlight disparity in media coverage of terrorism (emphasis added).
Yet far-right groups mount more deadly attacks than Islamic ones
Data from the GAO reflect a related disparity: most extremist attacks that result in death in the U.S. originate with far right groups.
From 12 September 2001 to 31 December 2016, there were 62 attacks by far right extremists that resulted in deaths. There were 23 such attacks that GAO label “radical Islamist.” Score: 73% for far right extremists, that’s about 3-in-4.
However, 16 of the 23 “radical Islamic” attacks (70%) were undertaken by John Allen Muhammad (then aged 42) and Lee Boyd Malvo (then 17). They killed 17 people over the course of eight months, with 10 over a three-week period in October 2002. Their link to Islamic terrorism was weak.
Only two of the 62 far right affiliated perpetrators had multiple attacks (two each).
West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center reported in 2013 that right-wing violence during the period surpassed that of the 1990s by a factor of four. The attacks included the 2012 massacre of six Sikhs at a Wisconsin temple by neo-Nazi Wade Page.
From 2015 to 2016, the number of anti-Muslim hate groups tripled, increasing from 34 to 101.
These far right, mostly white, groups are attacking people of color. Through their choice of coverage, U.S. media are tacitly saying that white deaths matter more than people of color.
We are lousy at assessing risk
[W]e are living in the most fear mongering time in human history. And the main reason for this is that there’s a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.
Chapman University studies “fear” (or anxiety). In 2016, the top fear in the U.S. was corrupt government officials. Coming in second: a terrorist attack.
In 2008, Psychology Today took a stab at explaining why our brains stumble when it comes to risk assessment:
Though the odds of dying in a terror attack like 9/11 or contracting Ebola are infinitesimal, the effects of chronic stress caused by constant fear are significant. Studies have found that the more people were exposed to media portrayals of the 2001 attacks, the more anxious and depressed they were. Chronically elevated stress harms our physiology, says [David] Ropeik. “It interferes with the formation of bone, lowers immune response, increases the likelihood of clinical depression and diabetes, impairs our memory and our fertility, and contributes to long-term cardiovascular damage and high blood pressure.”
No wonder Pope Francis admonished journalists not to “foment fear before events like forced migration from war or from hunger” or use their craft as a “weapon of destruction against persons and even entire peoples.”
Media can do better.
Christopher Bader, one of the architects of the Chapman survey, told Rolling Stone that certainty is what demagogues have on offer, a tantalizing “psychological relief for the anxiety created by uncertainty.”
Stir up fear and then provide the solution?
Media must do better: the nature of our society and government depend on it.